Ranking the 10 Best Men's Tennis Matches from 2015

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistDecember 7, 2015

Ranking the 10 Best Men's Tennis Matches from 2015

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    With the 2015 Tennis year now in the books, it will be remembered most for the dominance of Novak Djokovic. The Serb is far and away the No. 1 player in the world, and he left behind few big titles for rivals Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

    Djokovic’s reign, however, left fewer truly memorable or great matches that tennis fans will cite. There was nothing quite like the Wimbledon trilogy of 2007-09, Australian Open finals in 2009 and 2012, and hardly a classic like the 2013 French Open semifinal or the 2014 Wimbledon final.

    Even at the Masters 1000 level, there were fewer competitive matches when the stakes were highest. For the most part, Djokovic took care of winning titles.

    So most of the best matches turned out to be ones in which Djokovic was either competitive or absent.

    The spirit of rivalry and competitive play is what drives athletics. For instance, Federer defeated Djokovic three times in 2015, including one big victory for the Cincinnati Masters, but he lost five times for huge prizes like Indian Wells, Rome, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and the WTF final.

    It was a compelling matchup but not a great rivalry, with the results more lopsided in Djokovic’s favor this past year.

    The following slides single out the top matches of 2015 that will be remembered for their importance, quality of play and star competitors. We prioritize majors and Masters 1000 tournaments.

Missing the Cut

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    The Australian Open misses our cut entirely. Sure, it was the highlight for Tomas Berdych in snapping his 17-game losing streak to Rafael Nadal, but for fans, it was disappointing.

    The tournament saw Roger Federer ousted by Andreas Seppi in the third round, a rusty Nadal begin his most disappointing comeback and Andy Murray’s meltdown in the final with two very poor sets against Novak Djokovic.

    Even Djokovic’s five-set semifinal victory over Stan Wawrinka paled in comparison to previous duels in Melbourne because their quality of play was poorer. Eventually, Djokovic got it together and gave Wawrinka a fifth-set bagel, but his lackluster play had some questioning if Murray was not the favorite for the final.

    Other matches that were significant but flawed:

    • Murray defeated Nadal in the Madrid final, but it was hardly the Nadal of old in a very lopsided match. Great for Murray’s new clay-court resume but hardly a great match.
    • Stan Wawrinka outhit Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a highly emotional and charged atmosphere at the Roland Garros’ semifinal, but Tsonga ran out of gas and the match would almost be forgotten after Wawrinka’s much bigger performance a couple days later.
    • An honorable scare by Kevin Anderson in defeating Novak Djokovic for two sets at Wimbledon’s fourth round. But it still never felt like Djokovic would lose, and indeed, it only woke him up as he cruised the rest of the way.
    • Marin Cilic hung tough to defeat Tsonga in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, but he was promptly leveled against Djokovic a round later. 

    There were fewer great Masters 1000 matches when compared to 2014, and players like Kei Nishikori, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych never really scored the historic victories they would have wanted.

10. James Ward d. John Isner, Davis Cup 1st Round

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    Perhaps few tennis fans could have understood the ramifications of James Ward’s victory over John Isner back in early March’s first round of Davis Cup competition. Ward, representing Great Britain, shocked big-serving and No. 11-ranked Isner with his spirited 6-7. 5-7, 6-3, 7-6, 15-13 upset

    Two things stood out. First, Ward once again played above his usual performances by staying strong for his British teammates. He had a couple of big Davis Cup wins in previous years, but this one showed his nerve as he patiently looked for those few opportunities against Isner, a massive server but poor returner.

    Most importantly, the win allowed Team Britain to advance. They would lose the doubles match to America’s great tandem of Mike and Bob Bryan, so without this win, their Davis Cup journey probably would have died with Ward.

    Ward’s victory turned out to be enormously significant for Andy Murray and Team Britain. It paved the way for them to go on and capture a very unlikely Davis Cup title.

9. Rafael Nadal d. David Ferrer, WTF Round-Robin Match

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    Rafael Nadal had a tough 2015, seldom playing like the great champion he has been for a decade. He usually dropped top-10 matches and won only three mid-major tournaments. His ranking fell to as low as No. 10.

    Strangely, he picked things up after the U.S. Open, competing better and scoring more wins against quality opponents.

    By the time the World Tour Finals were underway, he was ready to unleash his fury on Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray, dispatching them easily in his first two round-robin matches in the Ilie Nastase group.

    Nadal had already clinched the group’s top spot and could have rested or packed it in when feisty David Ferrer fought against Nadal as if the the French Open title were on the line.

    Nadal lost a first-set tiebreaker but rose up to the challenge by grinding out several rallies, creating great shots and thrilling the fans with the best performance of the tournament. Twice, they engaged in 14-minute games, splitting these in the second and third sets.

    Ultimately, Nadal prevailed 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-4 in an exhausting two hours and 37 minutes. It was a Pyrrhic victory of sorts: Although he showed his pride and competitiveness, it would sap at least some of his strength for his semifinal against Novak Djokovic a day later.

    Nadal ended 2015 with the No. 5-ranking, improved confidence and a better outlook for 2016. But unlike loftier championships from years past, this would be his highlight.

8. Roger Federer d. Andy Murray, Wimbledon Semifinal

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    Roger Federer was nearly flawless with his service game against Andy Murray in the Wimbledon semifinal. Murray, the second or third best player all year, was completely overwhelmed by Federer’s serving guile, his net closes and another dose of vintage Roger torturing him in a big major match, 7-5, 7-5, 6-4.

    “Definitely one of the best matches I’ve played in my career,” said Federer in his post-match conference, via the Guardian's Bryan Armen Graham. “I served very well. I served a very good first-serve percentage and I served big. It was one of the best serving days of my career for sure.”

    The impact of the match had fans and experts raving. Former British star Tim Henman told BBC Sport's Piers Newbery"Federer played an incredible match. Sometimes you have to tip your cap in tennis. Roger is one of the best players that has ever lived and that's the best I have ever seen him play."

    It gave Federer fans optimism that their man could defeat Novak Djokovic in the final, sparking a surge of online chatter and wishes for Federermania.

    Several tennis writers picked Federer to defeat Djokovic, including Lindsay Gibbs, Chris Chase and my own pre-Wimbledon prediction.

    Of course, there’s a reason that Djokovic is King Novak. More on that in the next slide.

7. Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon Final

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    A year after battling Roger Federer for five great sets in the 2014 Wimbledon final, the conventional wisdom was that Novak Djokovic would find it much tougher to defeat the Swiss Maestro in 2015.

    Federer was much better with his service and net attack after another year with coach Stefan Edberg, and Djokovic had been a little underwhelming the previous week, including a five-set comeback against Kevin Anderson.

    But this is King Novak.

    Djokovic raised his game with another brilliant display of great returns, intelligent offense and steely nerves. With most of Centre Court’s patrons urging on Federer, Djokovic was in command, up a set and a break. Then he slipped and all but gave away the tiebreaker. SW19 had turned Djokovic’s challenge into a pressure cooker.

    At the second set changeover, the World No. 1 peeled off his shirt, grabbed a bite to eat and stared out at the court with fierce anger and concentration, almost as if he couldn’t believe that he hadn’t put the match away. What happened next was how we must define the great Djokovic.

    He didn’t press to do more, he simply refined every part to his game, turning up the intensity, running just a bit faster and keeping his footing. He held serve, broke the Swiss and dared him to raise his game.

    When Federer responded with more, he was the one who slowly unraveled, unable to match the Serb’s extraordinary command of precision as Djokovic slowly squeezed away the win, 7-6(1), 6-7(10), 6-4, 6-3.

    In the end, it was not a great match, but it was another brutally efficient reminder of who is the current king of tennis.

    There was a modicum of follow-up credit for King Novak, but was it also possible that his performance was underrated because of how good he was when it mattered most?

6. Roger Federer d. Rafael Nadal, Swiss Indoors Basel Final

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    Roger Federer came into the Swiss Indoors Basel as a strong favorite to win his hometown title. By the end of the week, he found himself facing longtime rival Rafael Nadal for the first time since the 2014 Australian Open semifinals.

    How many more Roger vs. Rafa matches will we get? It was one to savor.

    Federer was in control for most of the match, and it seemed he would cruise on the indoor surface that favors his quick-attacking game.

    Meanwhile, Nadal kept battling back, reminiscent of his late-year charge to return as a relevant contender. He hit some bigger forehands and once again pounded the Federer backhand enough to help him get the break for the second set.

    Federer pulled away in the tight third set for the 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory, remarking later, per the ATP World Tour website: “I know I've had better backhand days and he's had better forehand days than today, but the match was high quality and it was entertaining and exciting for both of us as well.”

    There’s nothing second rate about either champion as they work and fight in their twilight years. It’s clear that both players have some very good tennis in store for 2016, and we could see them cross paths for at least one more major match.

5. Andy Murray d. David Goffin, Davis Cup Final

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    It was a straight-sets victory for Andy Murray, but a hard-fought affair against a determined David Goffin, who was eager to play much better than his 6-1, 6-0 thrashing against Murray in Paris weeks before.

    In the end, Murray capped off another memorable moment for his home nation with a backhand lob into Goffin’s corner to secure match point in the Davis Cup Final, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3, in the fourth rubber.

    Murray sank into Belgium’s red clay as teammates poured out to lift up their heroic leader. But the Scot picked himself up, dashed to the Belgian sidelines and respected his competitors with handshakes and words.

    And then the celebration resumed. Murray’s teammates hoisted him up and carried him off. It was a fitting reversal of the manner in which he had carried his teammates over five amazing years under captain Leon Smith. But even the most opportunistic British fan could have scarcely believed that the magic of a title would be a reality in 2015.

    Murray’s 8-0 singles record and 3-0 doubles mark with brother Jamie figured for all but one of the necessary points to win the Davis Cup. Was this the most dominant performance by one player in Davis Cup history? If not, the list is short.

4. Andy Murray d. Novak Djokovic, Rogers Cup Final

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    It had been more than two years and eight matches since Andy Murray’s Wimbledon final victory over Novak Djokovic. Finally, he got the monkey off his back with a huge 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory in the Canada Open, hosted this year in Montreal.

    It was important for Murray to find more belief in this common matchup, where his opponent is a stronger version of himself in terms of groundstrokes, returns and mental toughness. Since Murray’s meltdown in Melbourne against Djokovic earlier in the year, he was only going to be able to think about winning major titles if he could beat King Novak.

    The match was also thrilling and competitive, with more variety in their shotmaking than their usually conservative bouts.

    Murray served better when it mattered, and he held on to a nearly 18-minute service game (like the marathon game he lost to Roger Federer in 2012 Wimbledon final) in the fifth game of the third set that featured 10 deuces and seven breaks of serve.

    Above all, Murray kept his composure and battled through his emotions against the best in the world, proving that he might indeed be ready to win the U.S. Open.

    It was the key to claiming the No. 2 ranking, and somehow, Murray would continue with balancing his commitment to the U.S. Open, the autumn swing, World Tour Finals and Davis Cup commitments against Australia and Belgium to finish the year.

3. Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer, U.S. Open Final

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Was it monotony or thrilling tennis with the U.S. Open on the line for the Djokovic-Federer final? These days, it’s a different duel compared to their greater U.S. Open classics in 2010 and '11. Now, Djokovic is the dominator at the peak of his powers, especially in how he suffocates Federer’s attack when the moments are biggest.

    Although Federer was brilliant at Wimbledon, until his loss in the final to Djokovic, he was even greater in his U.S. Open march. He didn’t drop a set through his semifinal thrashing of Stan Wawrinka, and once again his beautiful variety of offense seemed to have an equal chance against the king.

    Federer didn’t fold. He was better down the stretch than at Wimbledon, but the real story was Djokovic. Federer did not lose the match; Djokovic controlled it and won by imposing his extraordinary two-way skills and rising above New York’s Lilliputian crowd that tried in vain to tie down the great Serb.

    Three major titles in 2015 and 10 for his career. No matter how you slice it, King Novak is already in “greatest player” discussions that include Federer, Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras.

    He followed this up with a nearly perfect autumn, losing only one set in sweeping Beijing, Shanghai and Paris. He capped it all off with the WTF championship by avenging a loss days earlier to Federer.

    He's simply the best right now.

2. Richard Gaquet d. Stan Wawrinka, Wimbledon Quarterfinal

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    Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

    It might have been the most entertaining match of the year all things considered. Rugged Stan Wawrinka was looking to back up his French Open title with a semifinal showdown against Novak Djokovic. However, Wawrinka still had to get through Richard Gasquet, a talented veteran with many admirable skills but without the weapons or mental tenacity to be a superstar.

    In their quarterfinal classic, it was Gasquet who put on an aggressive, thrilling brand of opportunistic tennis. Time and again, he held his own with impressive groundstrokes before charging furiously in for shorter angles or volleys. It was like he had decided to mix in some 1980s tennis after consulting with a Spanish matador. He was daring and often brilliant when it mattered most.

    One of Gasquet’s enduring images was during the changeovers when he often changed the grip to his racket handle. He had put himself into a bubble, ignoring the magnitude of Wimbledon.

    By the time he had forced a fifth set, Gasquet’s beautiful backhand was playing with more aggression than Wawrinka’s, the latter relied on his bulldozing groundstrokes behind his own one-handed hammer. He was unable to wear down the slighter Frenchman or break his will, though.

    Instead, Gasquet continued to amaze with big shots, a key break and a chance to serve out the match at 5-3.

    Then Wawrinka responded with the break, saving his tournament and forcing the pair into another extra 11 games, virtually a sixth set.

    Deadlocked at 9-9, Gasquet saved one last breakpoint from Wawrinka, but the Frenchman broke and held for his amazing 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 11-9 victory, one of the very best in his good career and a major semifinalist for the third time.

    There was some terrific shotmaking from Gasquet, who stayed true to taking chances and interrupting Wawrinka’s plan to turn this into a ground war from the baseline.

    Never mind that Gasquet was brushed aside in his next match by eventual-champion Novak Djokovic, he was a classically entertaining winner.

1. Stan Wawrinka d. Novak Djokovic, French Open Final

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    David Vincent/Associated Press

    It’s kind of unfair, but when Roger Federer was crushing the ATP tour from 2004-07, it’s just as easy to remember Marat Safin’s 2005 Australian Open semifinal victory or French Open championships from Rafael Nadal.

    That’s because they came at the expense of the mighty Federer. When someone can beat the best player in a huge match, it can overshadow all of the champion's expected victories.

    Case in point, the French Open 2015 final when Stan Wawrinka sent shockwaves through the tennis world with his 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 defeat of Novak Djokovic. It would be the only loss of the year for Djokovic in a major match, denying the Serb a chance at a true calendar Grand Slam.

    There were two very noticeable sights. There was Wawrinka’s horrendous, plaid shorts that looked like bunkhouse curtains fashioned into pajama bottoms. There was also his eye-popping baseline power, where he turned Roland Garros into an echo chamber. He blasted shots again and again to double up (60 winners to 30) Djokovic’s more conservative attack.

    Djokovic’s first-set victory probably made him feel that he just needed to stay the course, that eventually he would wear down his more inconsistent opponent.

    Instead, Wawrinka seized the match, the Musketeer’s Cup and his second major title. Even Djokovic could only put his arm around his adversary as if to acknowledge that he lost to one of the great power performances of all time.

    Well done to big-match Wawrinka, who earns the top single performance of the year. He beat the odds by beating the No. 1 player, who might have turned in the best season of all time.